It’s that time of year, and you will all be thinking about how best to deploy your essay-writing skills in the heat of the exams. Much depends on your revision preparation, of course, and on how you manage to pull it all together on the day. Of course, everything that has been discussed on this blog is potentially relevant to putting together a good essay in the exam room. But I think there are also some useful things you can do specifically in getting ready to write a lot of words in a short time.
To show what I mean, I’m going to suggest that you go back to some of those earlier issues about structuring an essay. Remember that I suggested that you start by looking at your word limit and then work out a possible structure in terms of paragraphs. The same strategy can work in an exam.
In an exam, of course, you don’t have a specific word limit. But you do have a time limit, so start with that. Let’s imagine that you have a two-hour exam in which you are going to have to answer two questions: one hour per question.
Planning is of course as important in an exam as it is in coursework (have a look back at these two posts). You are going to want to spend at least 10 minutes of your hour in planning this essay, and you may want as much as 15 minutes. Remember to include your essay plan in your answer book, so that the examiner can see what you intended to say, even if you didn’t get round to saying it all.
Let’s say 10 minutes for an essay plan. That leaves 50 minutes for writing your essay. How much can you write in 50 minutes? That’s up to you, and your own particular writing style and speed. But if you can work out some decent estimates on this before you get into the exam, you will effectively have set yourself a rough word limit for the essay. And then you can simply go back to the advice in that earlier post about paragraph structure. Work out how many words (roughly) you are going to be able to write, break that up into paragraphs, and you’ll have the beginnings of a plan.
The best way of working out your writing speed is simply to set yourself some timed essays. If you don’t trust your own powers of self-discipline, then get together with a friend or two to do this. Afterwards, work out how much you have been able to write by estimating the word count: count the number of lines you have written and try to work out a rough estimate of words per line, then multiply the two.
One other crucial thing to remember. Writing is a physical skill. The words on the page are formed by muscles in your hands, and those muscles need to get into shape. You will remember from previous exam periods (A-levels or whatever) how much faster you write when you have had the practice of a few weeks of exams. Get your writing hand into shape now, so that you are up to full speed when your first exam starts.
Practice writing timed essay plans and timed essays. Go back and look at what you’ve written, or get a friend to read it for you. How could you improve on the essay? What have you missed? What do you need to think more about or add to your notes? What are you still not clear on? This kind of practice will get you into good writing shape, and it will of course bed down the knowledge much more effectively than simply staring at your notes.